Life experience beats coaching experience for new assistants at Nebraska, Wisconsin

The hallways at Memorial Stadium still talk to John Parrella.

On the ground floor of the building that has housed Nebraska football for more than nine decades, many of the walls, floors and ceilings have been refurbished or built anew since Parrella left the Cornhuskers in 1993 for a 12-year NFL career.

But the message from inside that space remains for the former walk-on turned co-captain.

“When you walk down those halls,” Parrella said, “you can see the history, and you can hear the future. You can feel that greatness is going to happen again.”

An ultra-sensory experience greeted Parrella, coaching at the high school, junior-college and Division-II levels since 2008, upon his return last month to interview for the Nebraska defensive-line coaching job.

“I wish I was 18 again,” said Parrella, an All-Big Eight defensive tackle as a senior in Lincoln 24 years ago. “It’s like, ‘Wow, this place is incredible.’”

Parrella got the job, bringing his deep Nebraska ties to a coaching staff without a connection to the Huskers before Mike Riley brought the group together a year ago.

Meanwhile, at Wisconsin, Jim Leonhard, who retired one year ago after 10 seasons in the NFL, came home to coach the Badgers’ secondary in February.

At both Big Ten West programs, the new assistants sparked excitement because of their unmistakable, built-in pride to represent the programs for which they played.

Parrella, 46, in his first major-college job, and Leonhard, a 33-year-old coaching rookie, begin with an edge over the competition. Before their first days on the job, they knew what it meant to wear the uniforms that hang in the lockers of the players they’re tasked to coach.

“I have a passion for football," Leonhard said. "I love teaching it. And I really don’t want to do it anywhere else.”

Leonhard looked at this job a year ago upon walking away from the Cleveland Browns, his fifth franchise after entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2005. He was an underdog at Wisconsin, too, a 5-foot-8 safety and walk-on who left Madison with a school-record-tying 21 interceptions and equal success as a punt returner.

But Leonhard needed a year to rest in retirement, he told Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst. By fall, he was in the office, analyzing film with defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.

“This is where we were going to put our roots down,” said Leonhard, who made plans with his wife, Katie, before he got the job to build a house in Madison for their family. “I’ve got two little boys. This was home, no matter what happened.”

So when secondary coach Daronte Jones left the Badgers for the Miami Dolphins in early February, Leonhard was ready. Wisconsin announced his hiring Feb. 20.

Chryst’s staff is full of connections to the Wisconsin past. In addition to Leonhard and Chryst, a former Wisconsin quarterbacks and assistant coach, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph and tight ends coach Mickey Turner played for the Badgers. Running-backs coach John Settle worked under former coach Bret Bielema at Wisconsin.

“A program needs to know what it is,” Leonhard said. “How do you win? How do you recruit? How do you develop? I think having coaches who understand that, it helps. It helps having a clear message.

“Going through this program [as a player], you get a clear sense of what it’s all about. It becomes part of who we are.”

Parrella couldn’t have said it any better. As with Leonhard at Wisconsin, he looked at Nebraska when Riley took over after the 2014 season. Parrella, then with one year of experience as the defensive-line coach at Northern Michigan, played defensive tackle for Riley’s San Diego Chargers from 1999 to 2001.

Reggie Davis, the Nebraska running-backs coach, was a teammate in San Diego. Defensive coordinator Mark Banker and special-teams coach Bruce Read were part of the staff.

Then last month, Riley fired defensive-line coach Hank Hughes after one year in Lincoln.

Parrella aced the interview.

He grew up in Grand Island, Nebraska, as did his wife, Leigh. They have four sons, including two in college, and a 5-year-old daughter.

Parrella said he envisions his kids roaming the halls at Memorial Stadium. He hopes, eventually, they hear the whispers like he does.

“With everything that Nebraska means to John,” Riley said, “ it will bring a special quality to his work here that is unique. He was hired because of his preparation for the work he has to do.

“The bonus -- and it is an awesome bonus -- is that he is from here and his life was molded here.”